By MARK DRAJEM
The odor in drinking water lingering more
than a month after a chemical spill in West Virginia is
prompting officials to test homes and consider the potential
long-term health effects from exposure.
After initial resistance, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin named
Andrew Whelton from the University of South Alabama to test
water from 10 Charleston-area homes to see if chemical
residues are still present. The first batch of samples was
shipped to laboratories recently, and evidence of the
chemicals distinctive licorice odor has been found in
at least one home, Whelton said.
Separately, the local county health commissioner, Rahul
Gupta, said his office will begin studying possible long-term
health effects of exposure to the chemical used in coal
processing, known as Crude MCHM, especially for
signs of birth defects or cancer.
There are more unanswered questions for us to state
either way that the water is safe, Gupta said in an
interview. We need to find the long-term consequences
The Jan. 9 leak of Crude MCHM and some related chemicals used
to clean coal triggered the largest do-not-use
order by the West Virginia water utility, covering 300,000
people in the capital and nine nearby counties. Whelton said
the disaster is unprecedented in its scope and
The experience in West Virginia underscores gaps in the
oversight of chemicals and the limits to much of the safety
testing now done by companies, health specialists said.
Eastman Chemical, the maker of the chemical, tested for
possible toxic effects from high doses on rats over 28 days.
It has been 35 days since the spill was detected.
Eastmans results dont speak to what this
could be doing in the long-term, said Adam Finkel, a
senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School
and former director of health standards at the US
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. We know
things are toxic and dont cause cancer, and vice
Eastman isnt conducting any follow-up tests of its own.
Its earlier tests determined that the compound isnt a
mutagen, indicating it doesnt alter genetic material,
and so it is unlikely that Crude MCHM is a
carcinogen, said Maranda Demuth, a company spokeswoman.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said
it has sees no reason to worry about the delays.
It is encouraging at this point that we do not see
indications that long-term health effects are a likely
outcome of this incident, said Bernadette Burden, a
spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based agency.
West Virginia American Water Co., the local utility, warned
customers about using water after thousands of gallons of 4-
methylcyclohexane methanol spilled from a tank at Freedom
Industries and into the Elk River, upstream from a treatment
The level of the chemical in the water is now below one part
per million, which the CDC says makes it safe to consume.
Lower levels of the chemical persist in many homes and
schools, according to testing and residents who say they can
still smell it.
The water company is dealing with a lack of certainty about
potential health risks from the low-level exposure.
Were dealing with this fear of the water, because
it has this odor to it, Jeff McIntyre, president of
West Virginia American Water, said at a congressional hearing
in Charleston on Feb. 10. Just because you smell
something doesnt mean its not safe.
Health advocates say the odor may signal that something is
amiss in the water. The risks of showering and inhaling fumes
released from hot water may be an added worry, said Jennifer
Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense
Its not normal that you are smelling these at
safe levels, Sass said. I would not drink
anything that tasted or smelled bad.
Sass said the CDC erred in setting the safe level of MCHM in
water at one part per million, and instead should have set it
at a level 40 times lower, close to a concentration at which
the chemical can no longer be detected.
Whelton is checking the water in 10 homes, taking as many as
60 samples from each to determine if different temperatures
or faucets contain higher levels of the chemicals. The
initial results were sent to out-of-state laboratories today.
Whelton has said its possible the chemical adhered to
plastic pipes in the homes or to corroded metal pipes, or
that it broke down into other compounds.
Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health
Department, said his office will be working with local
doctors to determine the long-term consequences.
The most important point is to identify and apply early
detection techniques for local doctors, he said.